Social networks are important for sustaining us as we age. We enjoy interactions with others and those interactions help us to maintain our emotional balance. We enjoy and gather strength and support from our family and friends.
On the flip side of that equation, being lonely and isolated increases mortality rates. As well, research shows that poor social networks increases dementia risk by 60%.
So, let’s pull this apart a bit and see what the factors are that determine whether you or your loved one has a strong social network.
Single and Living Alone
Who we live with has a significant impact on our social network. The research shows that having a spouse and children has a consistent protective effect against rates of depression. And we know that there is a link between depression and dementia. So, it is not surprising that being single and living alone is one of the strongest indicators for the development of dementia. In fact, it almost doubles dementia risk.
This doesn’t mean that you should run out and get married or if your mom is now widowed that she should immediately move in with you. What it does mean is that you must think about the social network in a more mindful way. Often when we are married and have children we just take for granted their presence.
Of course, the quality of the relationships with spouse and children also impacts on the effectiveness of the social network. As we age we get support and find meaning in those relationships. But when the relationships are bad they can have a negative effect. In fact, research shows that negative interactions with children can increase the rate of dementia.
So, close positive relationships are important to reduce dementia risk. But when dementia comes, those relationships still have a role to play. They can be sustaining and improve quality of life.
But just being a part of the social network of your loved one is not sufficient. Interestingly, even with close relationships, individuals with dementia reported that they wanted more social interactions. Focusing on social activities and interactions is important.
The number and variety of our social activities and interactions are a good indicator of the health of our social network. Individuals who participate in social, leisure and work activities have a lower incidence of dementia. The mental stimulation gained from these activities can help the individual build cognitive resilience so that they can buffer against diseases like dementia.
When individuals are robust and cognitively well, it is easier for them to self-motivate around social activities. Even if you mom or dad is still healthy it is a good idea to look at the strength of their social network. [Click here for a description on how to analyze their social network]
But what happens if they are living in a care environment?
How do you support them so they can continue to flourish?
Assisted Living or Long Term Care
One overwhelming reason individuals choose to move to a care environment is to be around other people. They may find that their peer group has dwindled in size as friends die or move away. A once thriving social network can disappear and an individual can be left feeling isolated and alone.
In that situation, moving into a care facility may be the best decision. The social relationships that they gain in residential care environments can significantly improve their quality of life. Factors often cited in quality of life surveys in residential care are the social support from staff and other residents, the social activities, and the continued contact with family members.
If your loved one is suffering from dementia, the move to assisted living or long-term care may be an obvious safety choice. But research shows that individuals with dementia also desire more social interactions. So being aware of the need to facilitate social relationships for your loved one should be paramount when settling them into a long-term care or assisted living environment. Helping them create a cluster of friendships within the larger community eases anxiety and improves quality of life.
So as a child trying to support your mom or dad with this move — what can you do?
Begin by asking the residence where your mom or dad is moving the following questions:
– What do they do to facilitate socialization opportunities?
– How do they integrate new residents?
Physical environment and activity scheduling can enhance or impede the growth of friendships. Look at how easy it is for individuals to move around and mingle with other residents.
Next, look at the activity calendar. See if there is a range of activities that your mom or dad would enjoy to participate in. If there isn’t — don’t be shy in suggesting activities. Most lifestyle program managers are always looking for new suggestions or ideas to enhance their programming.
Thirdly, find a way to integrate yourself into the social network of their new community. Maybe you join your mom or dad for one of the activities on a weekly basis. This allows you to spend time with them but also get a sense of who their friends are and what social groups they are part of.
Maintaining healthy social networks are important for us at any age. And as we age, they impact our health in a more obvious way.